Science News: When it comes to reducing energy use, every quadrillion BTUs counts

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A bright spot in the nation's flickering economy is that Americans used less energy last year than in 2008, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which recently published its findings online.

"Part of the reason is [that] the whole economy shrank," said A.J. Simon, an energy analyst at Livermore who calculated that overall energy use in the country dropped from 99.2 quadrillion BTUs in 2008 to 94.6 quadrillion in 2009. "People are doing less stuff overall, using less oil, saving money."

Another reason, Simon added, is that the residential, industrial, commercial and transportation sectors of the economy are using more products that are energy-efficient.

"People put in [compact fluorescent light bulbs]," Simon said, "and they actually use less electricity, and that change percolates all the way through the energy system."

The data also revealed that people are increasingly relying on hydropower, geothermal and wind energy, thereby cutting their use of coal, natural gas and petroleum. For the past seven or eight years, Simon added, the amount of wind energy used to generate electricity has steadily grown, with a 37 percent increase this past year from 0.51 quadrillion BTUs in 2008 to 0.7 quadrillion in 2009.

Since the 1970s, the Livermore lab has analyzed statistics provided by the federal Energy Information Administration to create a graphic representation of national energy consumption. It shows, for example, that the United States used more than 35 quadrillion BTUs of petroleum last year, the lion's share of them as transportation fuel.""There's not a lot of magic in putting this together," Simon said. "The hardest work was done in the 1970s, when people thought of a clever way to visualize this information."

The analysis is not a predictive model of the country's energy use, providing only a snapshot of energy consumption for the past year. "That's the limitation and the strength of the study," Simon said. "This is a reasonably unbiased presentation of the facts as they are."

-- Leslie Tamura

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